broadway

Review: Next to Normal

There’s a stigma around mental health that’s been poked and prodded in recent weeks here in Vancouver.

Former Canucks player Rick Rypien was one of three NHL players to die this off-season in the midst of mental health struggles. The VPD recently released its second report detailing how police officers become defacto health workers when dealing with the DTES’s mentally ill. It’s a huge deal and it receives media attention but for some reason, we still don’t really know how to approach mental health issues in our every day lives.

Performed On Stage

The set for the Arts Club's production of Next to Normal was designed by Ted Roberts. (GOOGLE PHOTO)

I saw the Arts Club Theatre’s production of Next to Normal earlier tonight at Vancouver’s Stanley Theatre. The musical, fresh off a hit Broadway run, three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, details how mental health issues have gripped a seemingly “normal” suburban family and how they choose to deal with it.

Diana (played by the wonderfully talented Caitriona Murphy) is a mother of two whose fractures are slowly starting to creep up into her marriage. Dan (Warren Kimmel) is her devoted husband who lovingly learns to work with her sporadic and wild swings of emotion. Gabe and Natalie (Eric Morin and Jennie Neumann) are their two children, emotionally distanced from each other as if they’d never met. The rock musical is composed by Tom Kitt and the book is by Brian Yorkey.

Illustrated Through Music

Though its format is a musical and mental health is a serious issue, the two concepts meld seamlessly, thanks to Kitt and Yorkey’s careful interpolation of each character’s voice. The music is wildly enthusiastic, an illustration of the mental states of each character at various points of the story. Voices constantly drop in and out of the main theme of each song, often with overlapping and competing lines.

Although there are points where the stress of the demanding vocals begins to peek through, it bears repeating that these actors perform the show eight times a week and have no understudies to rely on. All things considered, I’d still argue that the music is probably one of the more catching qualities of the production, subtly driving home points about how mental health affects us without us realizing, how it drives us in different directions.

 Private Struggle

Each character fights their own private struggle that runs parallel to the family’s main conflict — Diana is slowly becoming more and more unhinged as she bounces between treatment options. (It’s hilariously outlined in a sing-song grocery list of medication followed by, “These are a few of my favourite things.”) It’s not until part way through the first half of the play when we realize there’s something deeper and darker than just being chemically imbalanced.

Diana’s pain draws on emotional depths that are exposed in violent and frightening ways. The story does this by spending a fair amount of time examining how Diana’s actions have affected her 16-year-old daughter Natalie. As we watch Natalie meet a boy and develop a relationship, we begin to fear that history will repeat itself as we watch her spiral into a similar pattern as her mother — each of their flaws are reflected in the other.

Promotional poster for the Arts Club's production of Next to Normal. (ARTS CLUB PHOTO)

Feeling Everything

Without giving away too much of the plot or sharing my own personal history, the musical is rightly sold as “the feel-everything musical” — I felt it all. Thought its subject is dark, there are moments of hilarious clarity that give the audience hope throughout. Although my real-life situation is vastly differently from the story on stage, I could feel myself becoming attached to the struggles Natalie experienced when dealing with her mother.

While many films, plays, musicals, productions are predictable and follow format, Next to Normal presented so many different opportunities to its characters. I was never really sure whether Diana would survive the insanity presented at the beginning of the story but by the end, you become so attached to the characters that you can’t help but support their decisions and feel as though things will be okay. The story, characters and the issues discussed draw in the audience and force us to examine how a family falls apart and attempts to put itself back together again.

Next to Normal plays until Oct. 9, 2011. Tickets are still available and can be purchased at an Arts Club Theatre box office, by phone at 604-687-1644 or online at www.artsclub.com. I highly, highly recommend you check it out if you’ve got the chance.

Featured Photo: Eric Morin, Jennie Neumann, Caitriona Murphy and Warren Kimmel star in the Arts Club’s Next to Normal. (DAVID COOPER PHOTO)

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Fresh Roast: The Grind & Gallery Coffee Bar

The Grind serves espresso drinks, drip coffees, smoothies, and blended coffee drinks. Photo: Stephanie Ip

The Grind & Gallery Coffee Bar
Location: 4124 Main Street at King Edward.
Hours: Open 24/7.
Features: Gallery displays by local artists, free wi-fi.
Drink: Caramel Macchiato ($4.85)
Other: Espresso, drip coffee, tea, smoothies, blended coffee drinks, pastries, wraps, sandwiches.

I’m not really quite sure how The Grind became one of my favourite coffee spots but seeing as how I have a tendency to do trade sleep for meandering conversations about life, it definitely helps that The Grind is open 24 hours a day.

Where else to go?

When I usually head to The Grind, it’s late in the evening and either a friend is or I’m having a nervous breakdown. All we really want is a place where we can rehash our dismal mid-20s experience and brainstorm ways to find gainful employment and survive the carnage of romantic relationships.

Alisa Lokshin, 23, who seemed to be doing just that, likes The Grind for the same reasons.

“I like that it’s open 24 hours so you don’t have to worry about when it closes. You can just be like, ‘Oh, the Grind is open. Let’s go there,'” Lokshin said. “That’s most of the appeal ’cause most coffee places close early.”

Others who visit The Grind, do so because they are “hittin’ the grind.” Students filled the coffee shop on the night that I visited, with most of the tables covered with textbooks, notes, papers, and laptops. The shop seems small at first glance but the counter hides a whole other room that seems to be designated for silent study.

Grind it down

The menu is sparse but has all the necessary staples. Espresso drinks are available, as are drip coffees, teas, smoothies, and blended coffee drinks. While the menu isn’t exactly simplified for the sake of quality over quantity, it caters to the late-night crowd that just needs something to keep them going while pulling an all-night study session.

The same goes for their selection of food. The Grind sells wraps, pastries, squares, loaves, and cookies. While not of stellar quality, again, it’s enough to keep a hungry stomach going through the next few chapters of class readings. Everything is reasonably priced between $1.50 to $6.00.

The Grind features artwork and photography from local Vancouver artists. Photo: Stephanie Ip.

Recommendation

The Grind is definitely not the go-to destination for a coffee connoisseur, but it is a good place to sit and study for a couple hours, especially in the evenings and of course, in the middle of the night. Its location at Main and King Edward is easily accessible and yet, far enough away from the distractions of other busy corridors.

Their free wi-fi is helpful for those working off a laptop and the room in the back helps to separate those who are desperate for silent study time from those who just need a  place to chat late at night.

Keep checking back for the next stop on my whirlwind Vancouver coffee shop tour!

Featured photo of The Grind & Gallery Coffee Bar by Stephanie Ip.

Fresh Roast: Kafka’s Coffee and Tea

Kafka's Coffee and Tea sits on the Southeast corner of Main and Broadway in Vancouver, B.C.

Kafka's Coffee and Tea sits on the Southeast corner of Main and Broadway in Vancouver, B.C. Photo courtesy of Kafka's.

Kafka’s Coffee and Tea
Location: 2525 Main Street at Broadway.
Hours: 7 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. on weekdays, 8 a.m. – 8:30 p.m. on weekends
Features: Hosts free monthly talks by local artists.
Drink: Vanilla Latte ($4.25)

While I had wanted to stop in for a while and soak in the feel of the place, I was left with only 20 minutes to check out Kafka’s Coffee and Tea. Probably a good thing since the day I visited, there was a small group holding a meeting in one corner and various others reading or studying at other tables throughout the busy shop. The mix of larger and smaller tables makes Kafka’s a great place to study with a group or read by yourself.

Keep It Simple

According to their website, Kafka’s Coffee and Tea is “serious about coffee and not much else.” This is apparent in their stripped down menu and simple decor. Their website details their motive in selecting coffee beans, buying only from smaller farms that don’t use pesticides or fertilizer. Kafka’s ingredients are all “purchased above Fair Trade Value to ensure good wages and working conditions for farm employees,” says their website.

Brew Methods

Their website also lists four brew methods that are employed at Kafka’s: pourover (regular drip), aeropress, syphon, and espresso. While a lot of places only prescribe to drip coffee and espresso, I like that Kafka’s has these other methods for coffee drinkers who are knowledgeable enough to know the differences and subtleties. (Which isn’t me. Maybe one day.)

Vanilla Latte

Having come straight from dinner at Lucy’s Eastside Diner, and about to embark on a two hour school board meeting, I needed some caffeine and sugar to wake up me. Solution! A vanilla latte. I was instantly pleased from the very first sip. While most people are accustomed to the sugary syrup of Starbucks, Kafka’s vanilla latte was definitely more flavour than sugar. Not to mention, they do that awesome swirly thing in the foam! I’m not going to lie — and why would I? — but their vanilla latte is pretty perfect.

A barista prepares a cup of pourover (drip) coffee. Photo: Stephanie Ip.

A barista prepares a cup of pourover (drip) coffee. Photo: Stephanie Ip.

Recommendation

Kafka’s Coffee and Tea seems like it’d be a nice place to kill a couple chapters of your book on a rainy day. Its wide open windows make the shop seem roomy and while I didn’t get the chance to do so on the day I visited, I’d love to just sit for an hour and study or chat over a well-brewed mug of coffee.

Keep checking back for the next stop on my whirlwind Vancouver coffee shop tour!

Featured photo courtesy of Kafka’s Coffee and Tea (Website).